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Struggles Among German Jews Sometimes End Up in Civil Court

July 24, 1998
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The influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union into Germany is causing some fierce power and legal struggles — some of which are landing in German courts.

In some cases, the disputes have revolved around the Jewishness of the newcomers, but the main conflicts seem to center around the effects that absorbing the newcomers is having on the decision-making process in established German Jewish communities and in the election of Jewish officials.

The population of Germany’s Jewish community has more than doubled — to over 60,000 — in recent years as a result of a large wave of Russian immigrants.

German Jews, like most of European Jewry, are members of official local communities that are legally registered.

In the city of Hanover, for example, local Jewish activists accused the longtime chairman of the community in the state of Lower Saxony, Michael Fuerst, of relying on votes from non-Jewish newcomers to secure his position. The activists even questioned Fuerst’s Jewish origins.

In the end, a court decided several months ago to support Fuerst’s position and to re-establish him both as a community member and as the leader in the state.

In another more recent case, a group of newcomers from the former Soviet Union was excluded from the Potsdam community. The group, which calls itself the Association of Immigrants in the State of Brandenburg, challenged the exclusion and maintained that it was the only legitimate representative of the Jewish community there.

The established community’s chairman, Alexander Kogan, said the newcomers were excluded because they were not permanent residents of Brandenburg who lived in temporary housing.

The immigrant group’s activists told the state government, local banks and other institutions that they were the only legitimate representatives of the community.

But a German court ruled earlier this month that the group of newcomers could not portray themselves as such.

The court’s decision has not ended the conflict. A lawyer representing the group has said he would explore the possibility of an appeal.

Another option for the immigrants, experts say, would be to register as a separate Jewish community in Brandenburg.

Non-Jewish residents of Potsdam can hardly understand why German courts have to deal with the burden of resolving the on-going power struggle within the local Jewish community. “This is a very unfortunate situation,” a town official said, adding, “We would prefer not to be involved in this matter.”

Most German courts try to avoid ruling on conflicts within Jewish communities, particularly when they involve problems of the status of the individual.

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